Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Keir Starmer's Brexit Speech Mark II: Is It Enough To Persuade Floating Voters? Some thoughts.

This morning was really the morning I've been waiting for in terms of the General Election. This was the morning where I was going to get a sense of what Brexit would look like under a Labour Government and whether Brexit would actually happen if Corbyn became Prime Minister. I had high hopes for a U-turn, being not entirely comfortable with the prospect of leaving the EU but of course that was very wishful thinking indeed. However Sir Keir Starmer did a relatively good job of setting out Labour's 6 key tests last time and so I listened keenly and looked for a smoother, much less harsh Brexit approach. Did we get it? Well..

  • Labour wants to scrap the Conservatives' White Paper; that means that Labour wouldn't immediately consider leaving the EU Single Market and Customs Union without discussion in Brussels.
  • Labour wants a deal that "retains the benefits" of the Single Market and Customs Union...I'm guessing this means retaining the common external tariff (where imported goods are given the same tariff regardless of where they enter the Customs Union and then subject to no further tariffs when in the Customs Union). Exporters to the EU would then face no tariffs when they sell and consumers wouldn't pay for import tariffs through higher prices in the supermarkets. Brexiteers wouldn't be happy with us staying in the Customs Union because it means we can't do free trade deals ourselves with countries that are outside of the Customs Union. Labour have put the option of staying in the Single Market and Customs Union on the table and that would mean accepting that the European Court of Justice would have the ability to interpret and apply common rules relating to the Customs Union. 
  • Labour would get rid of the "Great Repeal Bill", removing the power for the Government to change laws after the scrapping of the 1972 European Communities Act and would create an EU Rights and Protections Bill. I think this means that Labour wouldn't want to transpose EU directives into domestic law and would incorporate all of their directives in their current state. Labour's reason for doing this is to ensure that employment protections, environmental and consumer standards can't be watered down. There would be no "sunset clauses" which would limit the amount of time an EU directive could be applied in UK law. Very few environmentalists want to see a sunset clause on the Habitats Directive or Birds Directive and trade unions do want to retain the Working Time Directive. 
  • Labour would offer "a meaningful vote" on the Brexit deal to Parliament but it remains unclear whether a rejection of the deal would mean the UK would leave the EU without a deal or whether there would be an attempt to regig the deal in Brussels. 
  • Labour's ruled out a 2nd EU referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal. Starmer said that the reason for this was because there would need to be transitional arrangements in place by the end of the 2 year Article 50 negotiation which means that effects of a final deal might not be seen for around 6 years. Whilst I understand that transitional deals need to be in place, the desire for a 2nd EU Referendum isn't for when the deal has been voted through, it's to actually allow voters scrutinise the deal and have their say. To many Remain voters who have not been won round by the Brexit plan, the Lib Dem approach of having a 2nd referendum on the nature of the deal is appealing. I personally feel that is a mistake but Keir Starmer was convinced that offering such a referendum wouldn't be in the best interest.
  • Labour admits that contingency plans and emergency plans need to be in place just in case agreements on transitional arrangements fail. This seems to indicate to me that Labour aren't keen to fall back on World Trade Organisation rules but at the same time aren't sure whether EU membership could be extended for 6 months whilst further negotiations take place. 
  • Labour says that on Day 1 of their Government, they would unilaterally guarantee the right to remain and employment rights of all 3 million EU citizens currently living in the UK before the negotiations start in earnest in Brussels. There would be no mass EU deportations of prisoners as some UKIP members want to see. I think this is welcome relief to hear because EU citizens are not bargaining chips and this part of the Brexit policy does differentiate them from the heartless attitude of Tories who still refuse to guarantee EU national rights. 
  • Labour would press for a guarantee for 1.2 UK citizens to have the right to remain in their EU country. 
  • Labour would look into negotiating the final Brexit payment to the EU but clearly membership of organisations is going to come at a cost. We have to "comply with international obligations",whether UKIP Brexiteers like it or not.  
  • Labour would seek to retain their membership of the Erasmus student exchange scheme.
  • Immigration is not the priority when it comes to negotiating the EU deal but Starmer reiterated that Freedom of Movement would not be part of any deal to have access to the Single Market. A Norway style deal for the UK, where free movement has been accepted in exchange for access to the Single Market has been ruled out but I do think it might be optimistic to believe that the UK could get a entirely bespoke deal. Starmer did muddy the waters in an interview with the BBC's John Pienaar a bit by suggesting Labour are willing to discuss free movement of labour between the EU and UK (which would please agricultural businesses and NHS trusts) so that workers can come to the UK when offered a job. This sits slightly more comfortably with me but it should have been made crystal clear in the main speech. Instead, Starmer in the speech said Labour had to "listen to what the people are telling us about immigration" and design a managed migration system that would work for businesses and communities. We're still yet to see what such a system would look like. 

I believe that it is important that we retain an excellent relationship with the EU. OK, there is the trade factor (44% of our exports go to the EU) but we need to retain membership of EU organisations so that we can continue collaborating on matters of security (retain the European Arrest Warrant and membership of Eurojust and Europol) and medical research ( retaining membership of the European Medicines Agency). Labour's position is certainly nuanced, with pledges to unilaterally guarantee the right to remain to EU nationals and scrapping the "Great Repeal Bill", which really wasn't that great anyways. These measures do appeal to me as a Remain voter. However, the promise to get rid of Freedom of Movement will ultimately mean we will have no membership of the Single Market, despite it still being seen as "an option" for Labour and I find that rather odd. Equally the idea that MPs could reject Labour's deal and then go back for further negotiations is overly optimistic. Do we really think that the 27 EU member states would go through the process of approving amendments to the deal in their Parliaments and for it to be completed by the Article 50 deadline of 29th March 2019? Free movement of labour seems to be an option being discussed as part of Labour's immigration policy so as to appeal to business owners who are afraid that they would be unable to recruit enough staff post Brexit but there remains the question of whether EU member states would be happy with immigration laws in the UK being restricted purely to those looking for work in the UK. Would their wives and kids be allowed to join them? What happens if an EU national loses their job within a year or two of being in a post Brexit UK if their child/children are already settled in school here? Mind you, farmers in Lincolnshire are already trying to adapt to life post Brexit by buying in farm robots (https://www.ft.com/content/beed97d2-28ff-11e7-bc4b-5528796fe35c). So perhaps some farmers are less concerned about labour shortages in the long term and may in fact vote Conservative again in June. 

Keir Starmer gave it a good go today. He outlined some key policies and attempted to address questions put to him in an insightful and engaging way. There's no doubt that Brexit is an extremely complex issue and trying to provide binary answers which commit Labour one way or the other (Remain or Leave) could result in hemorrhaging of votes in some constituencies. I do wonder whether there are enough policies to persuade Remain voters who have left the Labour party to come back and support Labour candidates in Tory marginal seats like Lincoln (for reasons other than Karl McCartney is a staunch Brexiteer who's being investigated for Electoral Fraud) but I do give Labour credit on three areas. Firstly that they wouldn't use EU nationals like bargaining chips if they were to win the election (although Mr Corbyn should have stopped passage of the Article 50 Bill at its first reading to get Harriet Harman's amendment through). Secondly, they are keen to retain membership of key research and security organisations, something PM May hasn't sworn to do post Brexit. Finally, Labour wouldn't try to water down EU directives or try to restrict their life through sunset clauses. It's vital that the protections we currently have cannot be eroded by hard line Tory Brexiteers who are chomping at the bit to reduce environmental and employment protections in the name of "free trade at any cost". As has been said before, I do not want the UK to become a bargain basement tax-haven and that's something I do really fear might happen if PM May and the Conservatives were to secure a massive majority on June 9th. That's why I'll be supporting a Labour or Lib Dem candidate for Lincoln on June 8th. Labour's Brexit policy platform is far from perfect but at least it has bright parts to it. I just hope Labour's immigration policy platform is progressive and outward looking; it could determine whether Labour can really be trusted to take an open and tolerant approach to those born outside of the UK in a post Brexit UK.